Corpse Flower: Facts About the Smelly Plant
The "corpse flower" named Trudy bloomed on July 25, 2015.
Credit: UC Berkeley photo by Avi Martin

One of the world’s largest and rarest flowering structures, the corpse flower is a pungent plant that blooms rarely and only for a short time. While it is in bloom, the flower emits a strong odor similar to rotting meat or, aptly, a decaying corpse.

There is a good reason for the plant's strong odor. “It all comes down to science," said Tim Pollak, outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "The smell, color and even temperature of corpse flowers are meant to attract pollinators and help ensure the continuation of the species.”

Pollak explained that dung beetles, flesh flies and other carnivorous insects are the primary pollinators of this type of flower. These insects typically eat dead flesh. The smell and the dark burgundy color of the corpse flower are meant to imitate a dead animal to attract these insects.

“Corpse flowers are also able to warm up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.7 Celsius) to further fool the insects,” Pollak told Live Science. "The insects think the flower may be food, fly inside, realize there is nothing to eat, and fly off with pollen on their legs. This process ensures the ongoing pollination of the species. Once the flower has bloomed and pollination is complete, the flower collapses."

Pollak wrote on the Chicago Botanic Garden's blog that analyses show that chemically the stench consists of:

  • dimethyl trisulfide (also emitted by cooked onions and limburger cheese)
  • dimethyl disulfide (which has an odor like garlic)
  • trimethylamine (found in rotting fish or ammonia)
  • isovaleric acid (which also causes sweaty socks to stink)
  • benzyl alcohol (a sweet floral scent found in jasmine and hyacinth)
  • phenol (sweet and medicinal, as in Chloraseptic throat spray)
  • indole (like mothballs)

The corpse flower is what is called an inflorescence — a stalk with many flowers, according to the University of California Botanical Garden. A mixture of tiny male and female flowers grow at the base of the spadix, the central phallus-like structure, which is surrounded by the spathe, a pleated skirt-like covering that is bright green on the outside and deep maroon inside when opened. If pollinated, the spadix grows into a large club-like head of orange-red seeds.

The plant itself grows to around 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters). The plants typically can grow to a massive 8 feet (2.4 m) tall and the leaves can be as big as 13 feet (4 m) wide. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tallest bloom was a corpse flower that measured 10 feet 2.25 inches (3.1 m) tall. It bloomed on June 18, 2010, at Winnipesaukee Orchids in Gilford, New Hampshire.

Live Science Reference Editor Tim Sharp reacts to his encounter with a corpse flower at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2010.
Live Science Reference Editor Tim Sharp reacts to his encounter with a corpse flower at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2010.
Credit: Photo courtesy Tim Sharp

 

The scientific name of the corpse flower is Amorphophallus titanum. According to Gustavus Adolphus College, the name is from the Latin words amorphos (without form, misshapen), phallos (penis) and titanum (giant). 

The corpse plant is also known as the titan arum, said Ross Koning, a professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU). According to the UC Botanical Garden, British naturist and television producer David Attenborough first used the name titan arum in the BBC series "The Private Lives of Plants" because he thought viewers might be offended by the plant's Latin name. The corpse flower is in the Aroid subfamily of flowering plants. Relatives include the common duckweed, skunk cabbage, calla lily and Jack-in-the-pulpit. 

ECSU has two genotypes (genetically different individuals) of corpse flower. “Our genotype known locally as Rhea has bloomed many times since 2008," said Koning. "Rhea has larger inflorescence parts and a much stronger scent than our other genotype, known locally as Hyperion.”

According to the Eden Project, corpse flowers can take up to seven years to bloom; some corpse flowers only bloom once every few decades. The flower usually stays open and emits its odor for just a few days. So, when a plant is about to bloom, it can be quite an exciting event for scientists and botany enthusiasts. These bloomings garner media coverage and large crowds of visitors. A recent blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens was watched from all around the world due to a live feed posted on the garden’s website. In August of 2015, the Chicago Botanic Garden was anticipating one of its corpse flowers, dubbed Spike, to bloom soon.

Pollak shared with Live Science the inside story of events leading up to Spike's blooming:

“Spike arrived at the Chicago Botanic Garden 12 years ago, a gift from the University of California. … At that time, Spike was a small plant, but he quickly grew in size. I, along, with my team of growers, took diligent care of Spike, moving him into a larger pot at the end of every growing cycle.

“This summer, on August 3, we noticed a change in Spike. The base of the plant was swollen and the shoot was growing off center — both signs that Spike might be developing a flower. In addition to the physical signs, we knew Spike was the right age to bloom. Corpse flowers typically require 7-10 years of vegetative growth before flowering. 

“Though we were fairly certain, we wanted to confirm that Spike would indeed bloom before putting him on display at the Garden. We reached out to our colleagues across the country, including those at The Huntington in San Marino, California; Pittsburgh Botanic Garden; Missouri Botanical Garden; and United States Botanic Garden, among others. All of these gardens are home to corpse flowers that have previously bloomed.

“Within a few days, we heard back from our colleagues with resounding affirmation that Spike indeed would flower. On August 6, we put him on display, moving him from our production greenhouse to the public education greenhouse for visitors to enjoy.

“We monitor Spike every day and have observed ongoing growth — he continues to get taller and wider. Within the week, we anticipate he will bloom. A strong odor, which many will find displeasing, will begin to emanate from Spike about 12 hours before he blooms, 12 hours after he blooms and will linger for another 12 hours. A beautiful, dark burgundy flower will blossom at the top of his shoot.”

Pollak also noted that the Chicago Botanic Garden currently has nine corpse flowers.

The corpse flower was first discovered in Sumatra in 1878 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari, according to the UC Botanical Garden. The plant grows in the wild only in tropical regions of Asia. Though the corpse plant isn’t endangered, it is becoming increasingly rare in its native home as a result of deforestation, pollution, farming and other factors.